A last-minute invitation inspires exploration of Argentina and Chile

by Marlene Candell, Berkeley, CA

As the 2006 Christmas season, with its attendant festivities and responsibilities, was moving ahead at a scary pace, my husband, Cass, received an unexpected phone call and invitation. Would he and I like to accompany our friends Claudia and Jerry Johnson on a trip to South America? They had just been invited to enjoy some of the January summer near the beach house of a Chilean friend of ours who had been a foreign exchange student with them over 30 years before.

This was a wonderful opportunity to escape winter, mild as it is in our San Francisco, California, area, and to make contact again with our Chilean friend Federico, his wife Constanza, and their wonderful, extensive family who had visited us intermittently over the years. Of course, we agreed. We also decided to extend the trip to see more of the temperate zone of South America, where we had never traveled before.

Planning the trip

But how to piece together, during our hectic holiday season, a journey which would occur in January, the height of their tourist season? We searched through several issues of ITN and found various ads from companies specializing in the region, settling on Caprice Tours. Travel agent Carmen Franco was a godsend — able to quickly and efficiently help us explore touring options and get us plane, accommodation and tour reservations on short notice during the South American high season.

Since our time abroad was limited to two weeks, our priority was to see the high points of Argentina and Chile, which would mean covering vast distances. We decided on four key areas of interest, spending two to five days in each, with three long but efficient flights on Aerolineas Argentinas.

Buenos Aires

We began in Buenos Aires, where the pace was New York City fast but somehow gentler. This mellow quality struck me immediately when we arrived at our hotel on Jan. 10 to find a Christmas tree still sparkling in the lobby.

The Kempinski Hotel Park Central (Diagonal Roque Sáenz Peña 1174), a European-style boutique hotel, was perfectly located adjacent to a tiny park a few meters from the obelisk which dominates the city center. After a day of touring in 80-degree temperatures, we could enjoy the balmy evening in the mini-park where porteños sat out under umbrellas sipping wine and lovebirds snuggled.

I like a city where the food is both expansive and inexpensive, and where taxi fares are so nominal that after our city tours we are able to return to key areas in various parts of the city easily.

So we toured the historic Plaza de Mayo, with its Baroque cathedral enclosing the tomb of revolutionary hero General José de San Martín; strolled the pedestrian-only Calle Florida and the shoppers’ paradise Galerías Pacífico; were challenged crossing Avenida 9 de Julio, said to be the world’s widest street; were in awe of the Thursday afternoon protest march of the Mothers of the Disappeared, an event dating from the ’70s started by mothers seeking information about their children who “disappeared” during the 1976-83 “Dirty War” and now regularly joined by activists for other causes, and understood why, with its wide avenues and many French colonial buildings, Buenos Aires is called the Paris of South America.

Of the various urban barrios (neighborhoods), we especially liked La Boca, the so-called Italian port district, with its brightly colored corrugated steel buildings, skilled artisans working in watercolors, silver and papier-mâché, and musicians and actors redolent of pre-Katrina New Orleans. We enjoyed as well being photographed with the ubiquitous tango dancers.

Another interesting area was the cemetery at Recoleta, like a small town of 18th- to 20th-century mausoleums so extensive that visitors are supplied with a map. A highlight there was the tomb of Eva Perón (inscribed in the Spanish tradition with her family name, Duarte). Nearby are lovely parks with a zoo, museums and an arboretum which would have been inviting had we more days to spend there.

Local flavor

For lunch we enjoyed the classic 19th-century Café Tortoni (825 Avenida de Mayo) with its marble tabletops, red leather seats, Tiffany glass ceiling, tuxedoed waiters and, surprise!, a table grouping with life-sized diners fashioned in wax.

Our favorite dinner was in the Puerto Madero barrio at Las Lilas (Av. Alicia Morean de Justo 516). We enjoyed the famed Argentinian beef but especially liked being able to dine al fresco at one of the restored brick buildings with views of a long harbor on the River Plate (Rio de la Plata). After dinner and a harbor stroll, we were surprised to find a bustling ice cream shop on the harbor bursting with patrons of all ages — and it was after midnight.

A tango show is de rigueur in Buenos Aires, and we enjoyed what had to be the best, and longest, show while having a fine meal with good Malbec wine at La Ventana (Balcarce 431).

Finally, for a day in the countryside we did an estancia tour to encounter the typical (though now outdated) gauchos. We saw a great horse show, enjoyed a lavish barbecue with floor show and had our choice of horseback or wagon rides.

This quite exciting tour, which was not included in our package and cost $50 per person, was arranged through our hotel. However, I personally would suggest searching for one of the estancias with a swimming pool, as the day was particularly hot and there was a lot of free time.

The Lake District

From Buenos Aires we flew to Bariloche, the starting point of the Lake District segment of our tour. The Lake District, which bestrides the latitudinal central sections of both Argentina and Chile, is reminiscent in many ways of the Swiss Alps, having crystalline lakes towered over by jagged, snow-covered peaks and Tyrolean-style houses.

We overnighted at La Cascada Hotel (Avenida Ezequiel Bustillo Km 6), located in a park-like setting overlooking Lake Nahuel Huapi, with an indoor swimming pool, an on-site waterfall and flower-bedecked lawns stretching down to a pebble beach.

The following day, we made the famous all-day Lake Crossing (Cruce de Lagos) which takes one on comfortable boats across several lakes, interspersed by bus journeys, crossing into Chile about halfway through. An added advantage to this itinerary is that, at this writing, visitors to Chile who ordinarily would have to shell out $100 each upon arrival at the Santiago airport are not required to do so when they enter Chile by this route.

Cass, the cinematographer in the family, felt that each part of the journey exceeded the last in beauty, ending with the crescendo of snow-covered cone-tipped volcanoes across Lake Llanquihue, including Osorno, which we saw from the resort town of Puerto Varas, where we stayed for two nights.

We spent the next day touring Chiloé Island, rich in myth and folklore and supposedly with inhabitants very different from the mainland Chileans. But, in my view, having a day there does not allow for getting at the essence of the place, and, despite the interesting stilt houses, Gothic wooden churches, old Spanish fort and charming little farms, I would have preferred a day out in nature hiking the volcano Osorno.

Nature at its best

Our next segment was a relatively rugged one, beginning with a plane ride to the Magallanes area. We landed at Punta Arenas, Chile, the southernmost city in the world after Ushuaia in nearby Argentina. There the wind whips wickedly, even in high summer, but the city offers an expansive plaza with elegant buildings and excellent artisans specializing in onyx, woolens, indigenous masks, beaver skins and anything relating to penguins, not to mention fine dining. We had our first king crab, for which the Magallanes Province is noted, at La Tasca Restaurant (Plaza Muñoz Gamero 771).

A bus ride to the Seno Otway Magellanic penguin colony was next. Despite the recent run of penguin flicks, nothing compares to seeing, up close and personal, the playful chicks march though the sere landscape to frolic in the tossing icy waters, shake themselves off and waddle home to their little burrows.

A long, exhausting bus ride took us to Puerto Natales, built around an extensive cove adorned with black-necked swans. This was our starting point for two different day trips.

The first was a boat journey past the astounding Glacier Balmaceda, winding its way to the sea, plus a short hike among fields of wildflowers, protruding rocks and trees blown by the wind into fantastic shapes to see the glacier up close.

On the way back we were provided lunch at a Patagonian ranch, where we were served piles of Chile’s famous lamb on table-sized hibachis along with good hot soup and red Chilean wine.

The other trip was by bus to view the highlights of Torres del Paine National Park. Besides the astounding views of the famous Cuernos (Horns, or peaks), there was the incredible panorama of serene lakes, numerous other serrated peaks, and clouds in ever-changing patterns. Wildlife abounded as well.

That tour was capped by a hike across a long, swinging bridge that led to a sea-green lakeshore where icebergs — from one foot to 50 feet in size — floated gently away from the glacier on the far shore.

On to Santiago

Two days later, after a long flight to Santiago, we took in the main sights of that capital city which, unlike Buenos Aires, can be quite easily plotted and seen via the efficient metro system. We did a walking tour of Plaza de Armas, with its historical museum, colonial-style post office, Baroque cathedral and historical statues, and the Plaza de la Constitución, with its Presidential Palace infamous because of the bombings there in the ’70s which saw General Pinochet’s forces rout the democratically elected Allende.

On another day we took in the funicular and cable rides high above the city to get a real feel for both the gleaming highrise buildings and the leafy residential neighborhoods, all dominated by the towering Andes nearby. We also lunched on the famous empanadas and shopped at the extensive Artesanías de Chile (Avenida Bellavista 0357), which featured everything from antiques and fine articles of leather, wood, stone, silver and lapis lazuli to charming souvenirs.

Later, on Cerro San Cristóbal (St. Christopher’s Hill), we toured La Chascona (Fernando Márquez de la Plata 0192), the home of the quirky Pablo Neruda, where his Nobel Prize for Literature is displayed. The high point, for us, was getting a personal tour of the newish and thriving Santiago campus of Desarollo University (cofounded by our host, Federico Valdes, demonstrating that modern Chile provides the freedom to reward individual initiative).

A noteworthy ending

Hours away we also visited the aging historical port of Valparaíso and the contrastingly elegant casino-­dominated seashore city of Viña del Mar adjacent to it. For a further treat, we lunched elegantly at the Indominato Vineyards (Km 64, ruta 68 Santiago-Valparaiso) in the Chilean wine country, which is now becoming internationally famous, particularly for its whites. Our gourmet lunch cost around $20 per person, including ample amounts of wine.

The emotional highlight of the trip, however, was our warm reunion with the entire Valdes family at their lovely Mykonos-style beach home in the private community of Marbella, 1½ hours northwest of Santiago.

Ironically, we had left the cold sea of San Francisco for the equally cold sea of Chile! But there was a soothing rhythm to life at the beach. There were long stretches of white sand dotted with beach umbrellas and romping children, colorful seaside fish markets featuring what many call the largest variety of seafood in the world, picturesque homes jutting out of the hills, and hang gliders over the sea. Unbelievably, our send-off on our last night was capped by a comet filling the starry sky!

The 9-day tour with Caprice Travel (Gainesville, FL; 888/232-4125, www.capricetours.com) cost $3,348 per person, including hotels, transfers, tour guides and many meals; internal travel (three flights) came to $632 each. The Santiago portion of the trip was privately hosted.